The Gullah people have survived on the Carolina sea islands for hundreds of years.
By Richard Thomas + Art by Sonja Griffin Evans
The term “Gullah” has been used for centuries to identify a distinct group of Black Americans from South Carolina, Georgia and Northern Florida in the Southeastern United States. They live mainly in small farming and fishing communities along the Atlantic coastal plain and on the chain of Sea Islands that runs parallel to the coast. Because of their geographical isolation and strong community life, the Gullah have been able to preserve more of their African cultural heritage than any other group of Black Americans.
Behind the name
The origin of the term “Gullah” is unclear. The most popular interpretation suggests that it may be taken from the word “Angola,” the Portuguese name given to their colony in the Congo, where the ancestors of some of the earlier Gullah people most likely originated. Other scholars have suggested that it may come from the name of the Gola, a large ethnic group living in the border area between present-day Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa, another area from which ancestors of the enslaved Gullah people came.
Still another possible linguistic source for “Gullah” is the Dyula ethnic group of West Africa, from whom the American Gullah may be partially descended. The Dyula civilization had a large territory that stretched from Senegal through Mali and the rest of what was called French West Africa. The word “Dyula” is pronounced “Gwullah” among members of the Akan ethnic group in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The primary land route through which the captured Dyula people came into contact with European slavers was during their passage through the “Rice Coast” (present-day Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegambia, and Guinea) area.
The name “Geechee,” another name for the Gullah people commonly used mainly in Georgia, may possibly derive from the Gissi people, an ethnic group living in the border area between Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. It is also suggested that the name may come from a large concentration of former slaves who settled along the Ogeechee River’s coastal plain in Georgia.
By the numbers
According to Port of Charleston records, enslaved Africans shipped to the port came from the following areas:
- Angola (39%)
- Senegambia (20%)
- The Windward Coast (17%)
- The Gold Coast (13%)
- Sierra Leone (6%)
- Madagascar, Mozambique, & East African coast (5% combined)
The term “Windward Coast” often included Sierra Leone, so the total for the Senegambia region is 43 percent. The W.E.B. DuBois database, which accounts for 80 percent of total African slaves received by location from over 35,000 slaving expeditions, along with recent estimates of the Charleston-Savannah slave-market share of total North American imports, suggest that of approximately 550,000 slaves imported into the Colonies and United States between 1620 and 1865, about 385,000 came through the two ports. Of the 135,000 slaves received prior to 1750, almost 100,000 or 74 percent were from Angola or the Congo region.
The Rice Coast
Rice is what forms a special link between the Gullah and the people of West Africa. During the early 1700s, the American colonists in South Carolina and Georgia discovered that rice would grow well in the moist, semitropical, upriver country bordering their coastline. But the American colonists had no experience with the cultivation of rice, and they needed African slaves who knew how to plant, irrigate, harvest and process this difficult crop.
The workers for the earliest rice plantations (1670-1690) were predominantly Congolese, and those people earned a reputation for hard work albeit with a rebellious nature, due to the fact they were fiercely resistant to their white masters and accounted for most of the serious problems among the enslaved. The Stono Rebellion of 1739, in which a group of 60 Congolese slaves revolted and killed over 20 white colonists in their flight south from the Charleston area, was fomented by a small group who spoke Portuguese while planning the uprising. The white plantation owners greatly preferred slaves from what they called the “Rice Coast” or “Windward Coast” stretching from Senegal down to Sierra Leone and Liberia. The planters were willing to pay higher prices for slaves from this area, and Africans from the Rice Coast were almost certainly the largest group of slaves imported into South Carolina and Georgia during the late 18th and 19th century.
Indigo increases demand
The development of the indigo market in the 1740s drove a steep increase in the demand for more slave labor, as did the burgeoning sea island cotton industry in the 1890s. The great majority of the slaves imported into the South Carolina-Georgia region from 1750-1850 were from the Senegambia-Sierra Leone-Liberia area. Of the 250,000 slaves coming through the Charleston and Savannah slave markets during those years, approximately 175,000 were from the Rice Coast (about 70 percent) while roughly 25 percent or 60,000 were Congolese.
If you analyze the totals coming in through the two slave markets during the 100-year period, 210,000 people (55 percent) came from the Senegambia coast, while 160,000 (42 percent ) were from the Congo, with another 15,000 from other parts of Africa. So, rather than originating with one or the other, perhaps the term Gullah is a blended patois Anglicization of the pronunciation of two African terms; one the name of a tribe from the Senegambia-Sierra Leone-Gambia region and the other from the Congo. Whatever the origin of the term may be, the Gullah people are directly descended from the people who labored in bondage on the rice, indigo and sea island cotton plantations of the barrier islands and the coastal plain, and their preserved language reflects significant Senegambian influences, especially from Sierra Leone and its surrounding countries.
About the artist
Sonja Griffin Evans is an international cultural artist born and raised in Beaufort. Growing up in the Lowcountry has heavily influenced her artwork and gives her an uncanny ability to capture the beauty, spirituality and purest representations of the Gullah Sea Island and of African American culture. As a prolific mix-media artist, she incorporates items such as tin, wood and other materials in her art. See more at sonjagriffinevans.com.